Blue Jays’ remaining starting pitching options

Ubaldo Jimenez pitches against the Atlanta Braves during the first inning of a baseball game on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, in Atlanta. (John Amis/AP)

MLB teams have committed hundreds of millions to starting pitchers this off-season, but there’s still not much more clarity atop the pitching market than there was when the World Series ended seven weeks ago.

Sure, there’s been movement with seven pitchers signing for at least $20 million and many more changing teams in trades. Yet most top starters remain available. Doug Fister is the only frontline starter to be dealt and the durable but unspectacular Ricky Nolasco is the best free agent starter to sign.

For teams like the Toronto Blue Jays that need starting pitching, this means many options are still in play. At the Winter Meetings last week, GM Alex Anthopoulos spent much of his energy pursuing trades for starters. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Blue Jays could change course and pursue a middle-of-the-rotation starter in free agency.

“I think the mid guy we would consider that,” Anthopoulos said at the Winter Meetings. “The back-end guy I think that’s where our depth lies. I think we have a bunch of guys that can be back-end currently and have some upside to be better than that, so there’s just no reason.”

In other words, the Blue Jays aren’t out on free agent starters, they’re just not comfortable with current asking prices. They could alter their approach in the coming weeks.

“If there’s someone out there – and there are — on the free agent market that are mid guys and maybe have the upside to be better than that we’ll definitely look at that,” Anthopoulos said. “They’re still on the board because I think we’re not the only ones that maybe aren’t prepared to pay the price. That’s not to say that we won’t at some point.”

So far the market has rewarded innings eaters with multiyear deals (see full listing below).  Ricky Nolasco, Jason Vargas, Scott Feldman and Phil Hughes are responsible for the four largest free agent contracts obtained by pitchers so far this off-season, yet none of them have a career ERA below 4.30. Yet the potential frontline pitchers haven’t started signing.

That should all change soon. The market should take shape once the Rakuten Golden Eagles decide whether to post Masahiro Tanaka. Once Tanaka’s future is determined, MLB teams will know if they can bid $20 million for the right to negotiate with the right-hander. Free agent pitchers will know where they stand in relation to the class as a whole (Tanaka figures to sign for more than any free agent). Even top trade candidates will be affected, since they’re coveted by many of the same teams that are eyeing Tanaka.

“It’s a roller coaster,” said one player agent. “Every day you hear something different.”

The Eagles could make a decision soon. They know the rules and they know that Tanaka wants to pitch for an MLB team. Now the baseball world waits on the decision of team president Yozo Tachibana.

In the meantime, the many teams seeking frontline rotation face a class of pitchers that hasn’t exactly changed much since free agency opened. Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and A.J. Burnett are the best available starters. David Price and Jeff Samardzija headline a group of trade candidates that may also include Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. There are still some quality arms out there, which means plenty of choice for teams like the Blue Jays — at least for the time being.

Free agent deals for starting pitchers:

Ricky Nolasco – $49 million, four years, Minnesota Twins

Jason Vargas – $32 million,  four years, Kansas City Royals

Scott Feldman – $30 million, three years, Houston Astros

Phil Hughes – $24 million, three years, Minnesota Twins

Tim Hudson – $23 million, two years, San Francisco Giants

Scott Kazmir – $22 million, two years, Oakland Athletics

Bartolo Colon – $20 million, two years, New York Mets

Hiroki Kuroda – $16 million, one year, New York Yankees

Mike Pelfrey – $11 million, two years, Minnesota Twins

Dan Haren – $10 million, one year, Los Angeles Dodgers

Josh Johnson – $8 million, one year, San Diego Padres

Starting pitchers who have been traded:

Doug Fister, acquired by Washington Nationals

Brett Anderson, acquired by Colorado Rockies

Hector Santiago, acquired by Los Angeles Angels

Tyler Skaggs, acquired by Los Angeles Angels

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